Born in Vilna, Lithuania, Saul Kagan came to the United States before World War II.
He returned to Europe as a U.S. soldier, having enlisted after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
His enlistment started him down a path from which Kagan has never turned back.
Fighting his way from France toward the Elbe River in Germany during the last weeks of the war, Kagan and his fellow soldiers “encountered many Jewish and non-Jewish slaves along the roads. I came across survivors of all kinds.”
The image would never leave him — and it became Kagan’s life’s work to help bring “a measure of justice” to survivors and those who were not so lucky.
“I felt very strongly that I wanted to be involved in what was happening in Germany following the defeat of the Nazis,” he said.
After the war, Kagan worked for the U.S. military government of Germany, serving first in Frankfurt and then Berlin.
At first responsible for preparing evidence for the Nuremberg trials related to the so-called “aryanization” of Jewish property — a term for the Nazi theft of Jewish-owned property — Kagan soon was named head of the Financial Intelligence department.
Serving in that capacity in Berlin, he interrogated high-ranking individuals in the banking world who were suspected of benefitting from the plunder of Jewish property.
After the U.S. government “accepted the principle that unclaimed, heirless private Jewish property and property of dissolved Jewish organizations would go to a Jewish successor organization for the benefit of survivors, we had to create an entity,” Kagan said.
His familiarity with the issue of restitution made him the man for the job.
“It was a revolutionary concept, because it went contrary to the principle that the state would inherit” unclaimed property, he added.
This greatly concerned France and England at first, but “we said that the successor state to the Third Reich cannot benefit from the effectiveness of the extermination program.”
The Jewish Restitution Organization was created in New York in 1947. Kagan took a leave from his military work to set up the organization, “and that yearlong leave of absence continues to this day,” he said.
The JRO became part of the Claims Conference when it was established in 1951, the same year that German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer accepted Germany’s responsibility to pay reparations.
Kagan became the conference’s first executive secretary under its first president, Nahum Goldmann. After 47 years as the conference’s top professional, Kagan, now 79, serves today as a special consultant.
“Adenauer was a devout Catholic, a man who really believed that the German successor state was both morally and legally responsible,” Kagan said.
“And it was clear to him that for postwar Germany to enter the family of nations, it had to deal with this issue. It could not aspire to join the democratic world without facing up to the consequences of the Third Reich.
“It was ‘realpolitik,’ if you will,” Kagan said. “But Goldmann and I were convinced of his sincerity.”
Today, 50 years after the creation of the Claims Conference and 56 years after the end of World War II, some Germans express the desire to be done with the subject of the Holocaust.
There also is a tendency for some in the postwar generations to confuse “responsibility” with “guilt.”
But “there is a clear distinction” between the two, Kagan said.
“No nation can escape responsibility for the past. The United States is still coping today with the consequences of slavery and the Civil War, among other things,” he said.
“You cannot inherit the assets of a nation and ignore its liabilities. And it is important for Germany to face up to these issues — which Germany has to a considerable extent done.”
Kagan’s memories are a virtual history book about the struggle to improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors. He recalls meetings, negotiations, and every twist of fate in detail.
“I didn’t look for this job,” he said. “I found it somehow. And in one way or another, for every one of us who is involved in this, we may make a detour here or there, but it never leaves you.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.